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June 20, 2019

Katrina Honigs meets Grothendieck

Posted by John Baez

Here’s a fun story by Katrina Honigs about how she found Grothendieck’s house in the Pyrenees, jumped the fence, knocked on the door, and offered him some pastries.

At some points it reads like a nightmare:

When he seemed totally unmoved by my getting out the bakery box from my bag and told me again to leave, I returned to the gate. I explained that I had climbed the gate to get in, but when he didn’t react at all, I thought (nonsensically, I now realize) that he wanted me to climb back over the gate to prove to him that this was indeed how I entered his yard. But, the ground under the gate was sloped so that the fence was significantly higher from the inside, and I was shaking from the huge influx of adrenaline that I was experiencing. After a few horribly embarrassing failed attempts at pushing myself back over the gate, during which all I could think, over and over, was “Alexander Grothendieck is watching me” (which he was, with what I might describe, in retrospect, as detached bemusement), I asked him to unlock the gate. However, he stood totally still and silent, like my own personal Ghost of Christmas Future, and then told me, once more, to get out.

No mathematics was discussed. However, it ends well.

Posted at June 20, 2019 4:06 AM UTC

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Re: Katrina Honigs meets Grothendieck

It may be of interest to note that an abridged version of Honigs’ account had appeared in the March 2016 issue of the Notices of the AMS.

Posted by: LMR on June 20, 2019 4:51 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Katrina Honigs meets Grothendieck

Am I alone in finding this story kind of unsettling? I am glad that the incident seems to have turned out comparatively well, but surely not curiosity, nor burnout, nor an urge to “demystify” can justify this urge to intrusion into anyone’s life, let alone someone who so determinedly communicated his desire for privacy as Grothendieck. Even granted that the author didn’t know that Grothendieck had explicitly denied her requests to visit, surely lack of denial cannot be regarded as permission?

I don’t mean this as an attack on the author—who among us has not done something as a graduate student that now seems kind of ill advised (no pun intended)?—but rather as a suggestion that perhaps this story shouldn’t have been told publicly, or have got the wide currency that a Notices publication gives it. On the other hand, I know Grothendieck even less than the author does, so perhaps I am off base.

Posted by: L Spice on June 22, 2019 12:55 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Katrina Honigs meets Grothendieck

I once heard an oral account by a graduate student who had also gone to Lasserre to find Grothendieck. His encounter was less successful, not resulting in any meaningful interaction. His motivations were to me opaque, but the psychology behind it seemed not different from that of those who ask basketball players for autographs and photos.

Posted by: Dan F. on June 22, 2019 2:04 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Katrina Honigs meets Grothendieck

L Spice:

Am I alone in finding this story kind of unsettling?

No. I agree that it’s obnoxious to chase after people who have deliberately done their damnedest to get away from us. But now that Grothendieck is dead, presumably this article will not cause any more people to pester him: the damage is done, so we might as well at least hear the story.

(If my theory of what happens at death are seriously mistaken, all bets are off.)

Posted by: John Baez on June 23, 2019 12:42 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Katrina Honigs meets Grothendieck

Readers might find themselves lamenting the lost conversation: what could have been discussed but never was. Could they not have mentioned the Grothendieck construction, the Grothendieck group, the Grothendieck–Riemann–Roch theorem, the Grothendieck fibration, the Grothendieck existence theorem, or any one of his scores of other discoveries? No doubt. But the ultimate construction — and hence the ultimate lost conversation — was given by Grothendieck’s mother, who made the Grothendieck Grothendieck.

Posted by: Dean Young on August 3, 2019 1:37 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

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